Many postgraduate research students (PGRs) at York will have heard of the How to Survive your PhD workshops. Founded in 2018 by PhD student Sarah Masefield, this peer-led PGR community project offers support to PGRs through sharing of experiences in open, safe discussions between PhD students and some postdoctoral researchers.
Over the last 2 years, we have received feedback from PhD students that the word “survive” sends an unfavourable message about the PhD experience. We heard you, and have worked to alter the title.
Having considered feedback collated from previous workshops participants, volunteer speakers, and members of the PhD community at York, we are now changing the name to: How to Thrive and Survive in your PhD. Please read on for a more detailed explanation behind our decision.
Why are we still using ‘SURVIVE’?
I wanted to address this first, as there’s been a lot of debate around this word. Although we recognise that for some, the word ‘survive’ carries some negative connotations, we also took into consideration the substantial feedback from some students who said that the word reflected and spoke accurately to their experience. It acknowledges the unique challenges of doctoral study, and the often multiple commitments and responsibilities that students have to juggle, particularly in these very challenging times
I’d like to also note that when the project launch committee first conceptualised of these workshops and the title, we intended for the phrase ‘How to survive your PhD’ to be a little tongue-in-cheek, nodding not just to the difficulties in the PhD, but also to a sense of shared understanding of these challenges among PGRs. It was a way of saying, ‘we’re right here in the same boat as you’, and an extension of empathy for the many struggles, big and small, that PGRs often feel they have to face alone.
Adding the word ‘THRIVE’
We hope that the addition of the word thrive will offer a more uplifting and motivating tone to the project. It is to suggest that despite the many challenges that we may encounter in doctoral research, there are also opportunities for expansive growth, for nurturing ideas, adapting to different environments and finding pleasure in our work in ways that will enable us to create excellent, impactful research.
I pause here to note that we are aware that words like ‘thrive’ (as well as ‘positivity’, ‘confidence’ and ‘resilience’) speak to a particular cultural moment where the responsibility for success and development is often relegated as the personal burden of the individual. “Just do it” slogans mean that the ability to thrive is down to whether each individual is industrious, disciplined, enterprising or diligent enough, and overlooks the wider, overarching structures that inevitably make it easier for some groups to ‘thrive’, than for others.
Bearing this in mind, we were concerned that although it intends to be more motivating, the use of the word ‘thrive’ alone might inadvertently create further pressures for a community that already often grapples with imposter syndrome and feelings of not doing/being ‘enough’.
Thrive AND Survive
We recognised that using thrive alone can risk sending the message that if a student is not thriving, then we must be doing something wrong. Conversely, using ‘survive’ alone denotes that the PhD experience necessarily has to be a struggle – that if we aren’t miserable, then we must also be doing something wrong.
So, we’ve combined the two words, in the hope that the project can speak to the spectrum of experiences in the PhD journey – i.e. acknowledging the challenges we will encounter during our research but also offering the right support and community, so we can respond in ways that are meaningful for us and our research, and help us grow both individually and collectively.
At the heart of this project is the researcher community. Going back to the original intention we brought to this project, we hope for the workshops to offer collective support, shared experience and understanding of the diverse aspects of PhD life, good and bad; and the opportunity for students to connect and build friendships with other researchers, including postdocs and alumni who have traversed similar research paths.
Some of my closest friends today are people I first met through my participation in this project, two years ago. I talk to them often, beyond our involvement with the project – we share PhD triumphs and woes, offer each other celebrations and commiserations. There are bits that I’m able to better ‘thrive’ in because they cheer me on and remind me of my strengths. And there are also harder bits that I’m ‘surviving’ because I find relief in their shared, similar experiences and reassurance that someone sees me and the value of my work.
So, How to Thrive and Survive in your PhD? Start by remembering you’re not in this alone. There’s support and community for you, for the ups when you’re ‘thriving’ and the downs when you’re ‘surviving’; for all the little wins, and all the big moments.
Join the project
The project exists because of the time and dedication of those who contribute to it.
If you’d like to volunteer as a speaker/facilitator for upcoming workshops we’re planning for the new term (Autumn 2020), please visit this page for more details: bit.ly/JoinPhDSurvival2020
If you have ideas about how to further extend the initiative or would like to get involved in other ways, I would love to hear from you. Please contact PGRfirstname.lastname@example.org and copy email@example.com to ensure you get a prompt response.
Note: we will be updating websites and content over the next few weeks to reflect the name change. We ask for your patience during this transition.